Now, I'm going to hand it over to Steven!
The smell of burning sky greeted them as the doors were peeled open. The air had turned orange from the fire and smoke.
Staccato bursts of weapons fire and distant and muffled booms sounded through the city streets. Dark winged silhouettes coiled before the face of the bloody sun. Thornn was under attack.
Horror author Brian Keene once said that the hardest part about being a writer was learning exactly how much description to use. Everything else, he said, was just gravy.
The tendency of most novice writers is to either use too much description in their work – I carry a membership card to this particular club – or too little. While many lengthy essays and documents have been issued regarding the balance of description, I think that Mr. Keene’s words really captures the issue like any good piece of description should: succinctly and to the point.
The best description, in my opinion, is about 80% complete: it establishes the scene with a few incredibly vivid details, but doesn’t go overboard by describing every detail. Part of the joy of reading a book, after all, is becoming immersed in it, and in order for that to happen the reader’s imagination has to be kept engaged. That means giving it something to do, such as filling in the other 20% of the details that your description alludes to but intentionally leaves out.
There’s something of an art to what I’m talking about, and I’m not claiming to have figured it out. The best that I or any writer can do is to closely examine the work of other authors who seem to know what they’re doing.
For example, one of my favorite descriptive packages of all time is the opening passage from Dark Dance, a vampire saga by the legendary fantasy author Tanith Lee:
“The woman in the fog. It pressed round her, walls of yellow breath. She walked in a moving jail. At intervals the stem of a street light would loom like a great thin tree, or an angled wall would jut out. High above, electric windows dim as old lamplight, peering. She found her way by memory. The fog had a sad melancholic smell that smothered everything. There was a feeling of a pursuer, but irrational, from every side.”
Lee’s efficient prose manages to paint a full and vivid picture within a very succinct passage. Many of the details come forth without having to be directly specified – such as the fact that it is night, or that the setting is Victorian – and the tone of the piece is established in just a couple of sentences.
Now, as I said, I’m still figuring all of this out myself, but since I started writing the Blood Skies series a couple of years ago I’ve tried to follow a couple of rules when it comes to working on descriptive passages:
- Good description is often as much as what you choose not to describe as it is about what you choose to describe. Since most description, especially for new authors, focuses purely on visual details, the other four senses often go neglected, which is a shame because it is those senses that help paint a complete picture. Contrarily, there is rarely a need to cater to all five senses in any one descriptive passage. Pick 3 senses, at best, and focus on those.
- Even the best descriptions often have to be cut from the final draft. When revising, try to limit the amount of detail when you describe any particular person, monster, or scene. You only need a few sharp and concise pieces of imagery to paint a monstrous creature vividly. The same goes for the first glimpse of a fantastical scene, a character description, etc. It’s very easy to overdo it. With a rough draft, that’s usually ok, but be prepared to slash and burn all of those extra descriptive sentences out during your revisions. (Yes, it hurts. Here’s some Advil. Get over it.)
- It’s okay to be vague sometimes, especially if you’re attempting to build mystery or make something frightening. Remember Jaws, or Aliens? Those films got a lot of mileage out of only showing you snippets of the monster that stalked the characters, and a writer can accomplish the same thing by being very selective and even stingy with the details she chooses to include. This doesn’t only apply to frightening passages – a beautiful character is even more alluring if you’re only getting a snippet of her seductive potential, the description of a family’s home wrecked by a tornado is made all the more jolting if only flashes of the devastation are revealed, etc.
In the end, there are no hard rules about how much or how little detail and description to use. It’s up to the author, their genre, and the target audience. It’s one of those things you come to gain a feeling for – there’s never really any “figuring it out”, but with practice and time you get better at it, and at some point you can read your own work without getting totally nauseated by how many sentences it takes to describe somebody’s hat.
Maybe, at that point, you’ll actually start to believe that you might not be as terrible as you think you are at this whole writing thing.